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Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Makes Bid for Digital-Comedy Dominance

Alec Baldwin’s latest series isn’t some 22-episode drama or a quirky comedy meant to last five seasons or more. In “Alec Baldwin’s Love Ride” the actor and frequent “Saturday Night Live” host serves as a relationship expert and offers couples advice while holding forth in the back of a New York City cab — all in minutes-long video snippets.

The show wasn’t put together by Warner Bros. or 21st Century Fox. And you won’t find it on a TV network. Other big names are taking part in similar efforts by the producer of Baldwin’s series, a company known as Above Average.

Lorne Michaels, the creative force behind “Saturday Night Live,” isn’t usually spotted hanging out at Above Average’s headquarters on 45th Street in New York City, but his Broadway Video production outfit is the company’s backer. Above Average could give the latenight impresario solid reach into the burgeoning world of digital comedy, a milieu many think is destined to grow as a force as younger viewers gain more sway in the world of content.

Kate McKinnon, Olivia Munn and Vanessa Bayer have all appeared in the company’s productions. And Above Average hopes to do more: In August, it will start a new sports-comedy vertical with Bryan Tucker, the co-head writer of “Saturday Night Live,” overseeing editorial content. The idea is to create content daily featuring top athletes, comics and actors in content that could range from unique takes on sports news of the day to scripted videos featuring athletes.

“This is definitely dipping your toe in a new era,” said Jennifer Danielson, Above Average’s general manager, particularly as more consumers become conversant with video-on-demand and streaming-video apps. After helping to start the unit in 2012, Danielson has moved Above Average from helping others create shortform video series for various multichannel networks to staffing up so the company can make its own stuff – and do more work for advertisers as well.

Funny videos seem to be everywhere these days, and not just on YouTube or through Vine. Satirical shorts make up a good part of the output from independent Funny or Die and IAC/InterActive Corp.’s College Humor. NBCUniversal recently announced it expected to launch a subscription-based comedic video service later this year, the better to monetize episodes of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Startup cable outlet Fusion, a joint venture of ABC News and Univision, unveiled digital studio F-Comedy in June to get its own grip on the format. The new ventures mark a big bet by media outfits large and small that the next generation of TV-watchers may not tune in to what’s broadcast at a certain moment but instead call up the clips and programs that are “trending,” or that their friends and influences are talking about.

“Lorne has a film division. He has a TV division. He doesn’t need another TV division,” said Danielson. Above Average is likely to tackle longer formats as the medium develops, she said, “but for this particular company, the mission is to keep making the best digital stuff we possibly can.” Michaels does not typically involve himself in the day-to-day operations of the unit, she said, but Above Average hews to a certain voice and direction that he has generally set. And his connections with talent clearly help.

For decades, Broadway Video has kept “Saturday Night Live” largely separate from its sponsors (though those boundaries have begun to fall in recent months), but it seems interested in using Above Average to court Madison Avenue. Above Average this week announced a partnership with Lexus to make a season of its original series “Hudson Valley Ballers” available exclusively on a broadband channel operated by Lexus. Above Average has also done work for Oreos and Hasbro’s Scrabble.

Above Average was originally less of a button-down affair. Its genesis came in the form of Mike O’Brien, the “SNL” writer (and sometimes performer), who in 2011 came up with a shortform interview show called “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” He would eventually go on to talk with Ellen DeGeneres and even make out with actress Patricia Clarkson. “It seemed like there was such a need and direction for that,” Danielson recalled. “We should be doing this in a more formalized way.”

Recent projects include the aforementioned “Hudson Valley Ballers,”featuring “SNL” writers Paul Pell and James Anderson; and Bayer playing an image consultant to musicians like Blues Traveler and Weird Al Yankovic on “Sound Advice.” And yes, the company does seem to have a lot of “SNL” folks taking part in its productions, but there is room for others: “Belle & Bernice” features actresses Sue Galloway and Neil Casey, who is slated to appear in the new version of “Ghostbusters.” A current series called “Ten Year Reunion” is based on the antics of Boat Comedy, a trio based in Brooklyn.

“We try to be a little bit satirical, more highbrow, but we are not afraid to be silly and do broad, goofy comedy,” explained Celeste Ballard, head writer for Above Average. “We really try and be smart and funny whenever possible, and if we are being dumb funny, having a reason for doing it.”

Danielson’s goal for the immediate future is to continue building out comedy “verticals” around topics like sports or women. Danielson declined to comment on whether or not Above Average is profitable.

“SNL” can’t hire a featured player without generating attention, but Above Average has tried to keep things quiet. “We have never done a launch party, never done a big thing about it,” said Danielson. “I’m not really interested in competing with other things. There’s room for everybody and sometimes, when you do that, you are setting yourself up as an ‘other.’ I feel like we have a great relationship with a lot of the other comedy outlets and I would like it to stay that way.”

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